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Issue Brief: FERC & Georgia’s Water Supply

February 24, 2010

What does a seemingly obscure federal agency have to do with Georgia’s water?  As I blogged earlier, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) plays a part in approving the Georgia Power Company’s dam and reservoir projects for non-power related purposes such as municipal or agricultural water supply.  FERC (pronounced like Kirk) “is an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil.”  FERC is also responsible for licensing and inspecting “private, municipal, and state hydroelectric projects” like those operated by Georgia Power and other Southern Company subsidiaries.

Bear with me on a quick trip down the history highway.  Energy companies started building tall dams in the nation’s valleys around 1900, and the unregulated process sparked intense debate over how the nation’s rivers should be developed, who should benefit, and what constituted an equitable utility monopoly. The creation of FERC’s precursor, the Federal Power Commission (1920), was one response to the boom in hydroelectric dam construction.  (In case you were wondering, these circumstances eventually generated intense support for – and opposition to – the Tennessee Valley Authority, electrical cooperatives, and the Rural Electrification Administration in the 1930s.)  Congress initially tasked the Federal Power Commission with reviewing applications and issuing fifty-year licenses for power projects on the nation’s “navigable” waterways.  The Federal Power Commission was reorganized in 1977 and reincarnated as FERC.  Today, FERC has the same Federal Power Commission powers as well as the responsibility for evaluating a project’s impacts on recreation, water quality, and fish & wildlife.

Here is why FERC matters now.  According Georgia Power’s North Georgia Project FERC license (issued in 1996), the company could withdraw up to 1 million gallons per day (MGD) from each of the Tallulah and Tugalo rivers’ six reservoirs without notifying FERC.  Since 1996, FERC has approved Georgia Power’s requests to increase water supply withdrawals on multiple occasions, most recently in 2005.  To date, FERC has endorsed the company’s decisions to allow municipalities to pull up to 9.5 MGD combined from Lakes Yonah and Rabun.  FERC license amendments are not so difficult to obtain, according to American Rivers’ Gerrit Jöbsis.  A Georgia municipality or agricultural entity that wants to access a private company’s reservoir for water supply needs two things to obtain FERC approval.  First, the dam and reservoir operators must consent because they generally need the water to generate electricity and they own the reservoir’s riparian shoreline.  Second, and if the thirsty party gets past the first condition, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) would have to issue a discharge certification to meet the Clear Water Act’s Section 401(a) standard and issue a surface water allocation (withdrawal) permit.  Upon meeting these two conditions, and after assessing public input, FERC would approve a license amendment.

In short, amending an existing FERC license for water supply prior to expiration is neither unprecedented nor impossible.  However, previous water supply amendments to Georgia Power’s North Georgia FERC license were small in comparison to the Water Contingency Task Force’s December 2009 suggestion to withdraw 50 MGD from Lake Burton (Savannah basin) for an interbasin transfer (IBT) into the Soque River (Chattahoochee) for metro Atlanta’s benefit.  As such, it’s not clear how FERC would respond to a situation of this magnitude.

Curious about your neighborhood dam?  The Hydropower Reform Coalition gives you the power to search FERC licensed projects by region and access the FERC library online.  Want to keep tabs on a project?  Find citizens’ rights and other FERC resources here.  Happy fishing.

-Chris Manganiello

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